In Eastern Europe, where both world wars began, the end of the Cold War began on Oct. 16, 1978, with a puff of white smoke in Western Europe. It wafted over one of Europe's grandest public spaces, over Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's, over statues of the saints atop Bernini's curving colonnade that embraces visitors to Vatican City.
Ten years later, when the fuse that Polish workers had lit in a Gdansk shipyard ignited the explosion that leveled the Berlin Wall, it was clear that one of the most consequential people of the 20th century's second half was a Pole who lived in Rome, governing a city-state of 109 acres.
Science teaches that reality is strange -- solid objects are mostly space; the experience of time is a function of speed; gravity bends light. History, too, teaches strange truths: John Paul II occupied the world's oldest office, which traces its authority to history's most potent figure, a Palestinian who never traveled a hundred miles from his birthplace, who never wrote a book and who died at 33. And religion, once a legitimizer of political regimes, became in John Paul II's deft hands a delegitimizer of communism's ersatz religion.
In an amazingly fecund 27-month period, the cause of freedom was strengthened by the coming to high offices of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, who, like the president, had been an actor and was gifted at the presentational dimension of his office. This peripatetic pope was seen by more people than anyone in history, and his most important trip came early. It was a visit to Poland that began on June 2, 1979.
In nine days a quarter of that nation's population saw him. Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, but it did not have a sedative effect on the Poles. The pope's visit was the nation's epiphany, a thunderous realization that the nation was of one mind, mocking the futility of communism's 35-year attempt to conquer Poland's consciousness. Between 1795 and 1918, Poland had been erased from the map of Europe, partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia. This gave Poles an acute sense of the distinction between the state and the real nation.
Igor Stravinsky, speaking with a Russian's stoicism about Poland's sufferings, said that if you pitch your tent in the middle of New York's Fifth Avenue, you are going to be hit by a bus. The Poland where John Paul II grew to sturdy, athletic manhood was hit first by Nazism, then communism. Then, benignly, by John Paul II.
It was said that the fin de siecle Vienna of Freud and Wittgenstein was the little world in which the larger world had its rehearsals. In the late 1970s the Poland of John Paul II and Lech Walesa was like that. The 20th century's worst political invention was totalitarianism, a tenet of which is that the masses must not be allowed to mass: Totalitarianism is a mortar and pestle for grinding society into a dust of individuals. Small wonder, then, that Poland's ruler, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, visibly trembled in the presence of the priest who brought Poland to its feet in the face of tyranny by first bringing Poland to its knees in his presence.
John Paul II almost did not live to see this glorious consummation. In 1981 three of the world's largest figures -- Ronald Reagan, Anwar Sadat and John Paul II -- were shot. History would have taken an altered course if Sadat had not been the only one killed.
Our age celebrates the watery toleration preached by people for whom "judgmental" is an epithet denoting an intolerable moral confidence. John Paul II bristled with judgments, including this: The inevitability of progress is a myth, hence the certainty that mankind is wiser today than yesterday is chimeric.
Secular Europe is, however, wiser because of a man who worked at an altar. Europeans have been plied and belabored by various historicisms purporting to show that individuals are nullities governed by vast impersonal forces. Beginning in 1978, Europeans saw one man seize history by the lapels and shake it.
One of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown detective stories includes this passage: " 'I'm afraid I'm a practical man,' said the doctor with gruff humor, 'and I don't bother much about religion and philosophy.' 'You'll never be a practical man till you do,' said Father Brown."
A poet made the same point: "A flame rescued from dry wood has no weight in its luminous flight yet lifts the heavy lid of night." The poet became John Paul II.